My only previous experience of travelling in Portugal was a family holiday to the Algarve when I was about ten years old. But Portugal has much more to offer than package holiday beaches. This time I ventured north, to Lisbon, Sintra, Coimbra, Tomar and Porto, during a ten day trip that took in port wine, beaches, fantastic architecture, great food and wonderful hospitality, all at prices that would be hard to beat in other southern European destinations.
The main highlights are listed in the Lonely Planet’s Portugal guidebook (I have to say however that this is one of the worst LP guides I’ve used – mistakes abound in opening times, and poorly written (I think Regis St Louis is responsible for the annoyingly off-the-cuff, chatty style)).
Definitely visit Belem for a half day that takes in a famous pastry shop (Casa Pasteis De Belem), a monastery (Jerónimos, closed Mondays) and a free modern art museum (Berardo Modern Art Museum, closed Mondays). Check out the winding roads of the Alfama, ride on Tram 28, and if you like fish and other sea creatures, visit the Oceanario (which has cute sea otters!). I found the Bairro Alto a bit overrated – there’s a lot of bars with cheap booze, but is that really enough to recommend this area for nightlife? Maybe for some, but we didn’t find any bars with much character. For souvenirs, visit A Vida Portuguesa, and Conserveira de Lisboa for Tricana tinned sardines. There are port wine shops everywhere, and to be honest the range and quality is on a par with what’s available in Porto, so buy in either location.
In terms of slightly less well-known sights, I’d definitely recommend the Museu do Oriente. We went on a Friday, early evening, when entry is free, and practically had the museum to ourselves. It has a fantastic, well-displayed permanent collection of items focusing on Portugal’s colonial presence in Asia, and Asian gods. Be sure to visit Ginjinha, a bar that serves a sweet cherry liqueur in plastic cups. There is the original bar – which closes at 10pm – and another slightly further north, which stays open later. We stayed in the central area around Rossio metro which is extremely convenient.
Tram 28 in the Alfama, Lisbon.
The only day-trip that I made from Lisbon was to Costa da Caparica. The weather wasn’t ideal, but this didn’t stop me having an enjoyable cycle along the coast (you can rent bikes from Bike Iberia). The unexpected highlight was the ferry stop of Trafaria – which I reached from Belem. It had a lot of crumbling buildings and disused fishing boats, and provided ample photographic inspiration. On sunnier days the beach at Costa da Caparica must be beautiful, so do visit if you can.
Disused fishing boat in Trafaria
We visited three restaurants in Lisbon. First was Petiscaria Ideal, where we had a range of sharing tapas including octopus, cuttlefish in ink and crispy pork mini-sandwiches. This was probably the weakest of the three restaurants – slightly overpriced – but still enjoyable nonetheless. Next up was Cantinho Lusitano, an extremely popular restaurant that should definitely be booked in advance. We had a range of interesting tapas here, including thin strips of beef in a mustardy sauce, pork sausage, goats cheese in honey and cod croquettes, and received excellent service. Finally we visited Churrasco da Graca, the most ‘local’ of restaurants which specialises in extremely good value portions of spatchcocked, grilled chicken, and large pieces of codfish. One of the best desserts in Portugal is the slightly-salty, rich, Portuguese chocolate mousse that can be found everywhere.
The Alfama at night
Lisbon was an enjoyable place to spend a few days. It’s an easy city to get around, thanks to the tram and metro systems, and has a lot to offer in terms of food, museums, architecture and day-trips. Despite being a capital it has an almost provincial feel to it, which makes it even more agreeable.
So, Sintra. This highly-recommended destination close to Lisbon is extremely popular. But in truth … it’s a bit boring. I can see the appeal for the over-sixty market, but if you’re in your twenties or thirties you could probably limit your visit to a day trip from Lisbon. The town is extremely small, and there are some good walks. But the real highlight for us was getting the bus west to the coast, to the beach of Praia da Adraga with its seafood lunch – the best meal we had in Portugal. This consisted of amêijoas de bulhão pato (clams in garlic) and camaroes (prawns), followed by grilled sardines, and washed down with vinho verde. Again the weather could have been better, but the beach was no less dramatic and beautiful because of this. We also had one fantastic meal at Restaurante Dom Pipas in Sintra. We ordered the acorda de marisco, and were presented with a bowl of brown sludge. Yet it turned out to be one of the most fantastically flavoured seafood stews I’ve ever tasted, full of mashed bread, garlic, coriander, and juicy seafood.
Praia da Adraga
The Convento de Cristo in Tomar is probably one of the most spectacular places in Portugal, certainly more impressive than Sintra. Founded by the Knights Templar, it’s a beautiful, mysterious and magical place that gets less visitors than Sintra – thus affording me the opportunity to take this photo with no people in! It’s well-worth a day-trip from Lisbon, or a few hours stopover if you are heading north from Lisbon by train anyway, like we were.
The spectacular Convento de Cristo, Tomar
Yet another Portuguese town on a very steep hill, Coimbra is the student centre of the country and the fourth-largest city after Lisbon, Porto and Braga. It’s an appealing overnight stop on the way north/south, and a good place to experience a distinct form of fado, Portuguese melancholic singing.
Porto from the Dom Luis Bridge
The city of Porto sits on two sides of a river valley. On one side, the colourful buildings of the city stretch across steep hills. On the equally-steep other side, technically a different municipality called Villa Nova de Gaia, there are numerous port wine lodges. Joining them is the Dom Luis Bridge, a spectacular creation from the man behind the Eiffel Tower.
In Porto the sun finally came out! But this wasn’t the only reason I preferred the city to Lisbon in the end. It’s an enchanting place, light on ‘must-see’ sights but a beautiful place to stroll, sample port and take day trips to nearby beaches if the weather is good. We skipped the recommended modern art museum because it was out of town, and opted to stay in the city, do a walking tour and visit a photography museum instead.
We also jumped into the port-tasting, with visits to the Graham’s, Taylor’s, Sandeman and Ramos Pinto port cellars. All four had something special to offer, but if I had to choose one to visit it’d probably be Taylor’s, despite this also being the most touristy. I’m a big fan of port, and brought two bottles back with me – a Niepoort ten year tawny and a bottle of Ramos Pinto Lagrima. Other highlights from tastings included the Graham’s 20 year tawny and Taylor’s 10 year. Do a tour in one port lodge, and then skip it in the others and head straight to the tasting room.
Porto, with Villa Nova de Gaia in the background
From Porto you can take a train south that stops at several windswept but beautiful beaches. We went to Espinho, and also to Miramar and walked along the coast to Aguda. I’d recommend the latter, which is quieter.
Beach between Miramar and Aguda
We tried three restaurants in Porto. Ora Viva was a bit disappointing considering its popularity, with an underseasoned and underflavoured seafood stew and a slightly sorry-looking portion of grilled octopus. Andor Violeta hit the spot on flavours if not on hearty quantities – it’s a more refined restaurant that nonetheless had the best octopus I’ve ever tasted – succulent, juicy and perfectly cooked. Finally, for a special occasion we visited O Paparico, one of the top restaurants in Porto. It didn’t disappoint, with starters of cod fish ceviche with corn bread and salmon roes and a veal terrine with port wine sauce and fennel, and then a beautifully roasted piece of veal as a shared main course.
Dom Luis Bridge at night
Overall I loved Portugal – it has a fantastic variety of food, some beautiful cities, wonderful port and fantastic beaches – everything you could want from a European holiday, at very reasonable prices!
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